Category Archives: Analysis

Abstracting and recombining all the way to the bank

In the past I’ve never understood what people really mean they say “think outside the box” but Jim Harris, in a recent OCDQ blog post, helped me figure it out.

Mr. Harris ends with this provocative line: “the bottom line is Google and Facebook have socialized data in order to capitalize data as a true corporate asset.”  The post starts with a cold war analogy and proceeds to describe how Facebook and Google have made big money as “internet advertising agencies:” offering free services with which users (like us) serve up personal data in return for use of the service, then selling advertising space based on our data (hopefully anonymized).

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Get an early start for on-time data modeling

I’m a data modeler, so I enjoyed Jonathon Geiger’s recent article entitled “Why Does Data Modeling Take So Long”.  But why does he say it like it’s a bad thing?

Mr. Geiger’s bottom line is exactly right: “Most of the time spent developing data models is consumed developing or clarifying the requirements and business rules and ensuring that the data structure can be populated by the existing data sources.”  On the projects he describes, no one took time before modeling to determine available data sources and identify business entities of interest, relationships among them, and attributes that describe them before database design started, so the data modeler had to do it.

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Metadata goals, ROI, and point solutions

Recently there has been a long, and very interesting, discussion of do-it-yourself versus third-party metadata tools on LinkedIn’s TDWI BI and DW discussion forum (membership required to follow the link). I have followed but haven’t commented, but I suppose I contributed when Information Management kindly published my article on DIY metadata.

The discussion is extremely informative, presenting the views of a variety of knowledgeable professionals in different situations, and describing successful and sometimes not-so-successful efforts to solve the essential metadata challenge: how to document what information is locked up in databases. Continue reading

Use conceptual data modeling in requirements definition

I’ve often thought that conceptual data modeling was an underused tool in the arsenal available to requirements analysts, and in a recent conversation I found that many were surprised that it would be used in the requirements phase at all. Checking the Business Analysis Body of Knowledge (BABOK) I found data modeling listed among the tools available to requirements analysts to “to describe the concepts relevant to a domain, the relationships between those concepts, and information associated with them.” There’s also Steve Hoberman’s excellent book on the topic, Data Modeling for the Business, an introduction to data modeling aimed at a business audience. Continue reading

IT should own the misalignment problem

In a new post at Insurance Networking News Ara Trembly provides a balanced perspective on IT/business misalignment (Business/IT Misalignment: Whose Responsibility?).  He describes the problem as cultural, more amenable to relational than management solutions.    His conclusion sums it up: “Take a geek/suit to lunch today!”

To me (speaking as an IT professional) IT should take the initiative to solve the problem.  Continue reading

No business value in nulls

It seems I’m frequently in conversations about using null to represent a business value.  To paraphrase, say there are credit and cash customers, and there’s a suggestion to set “Customer_Type” to “C” for credit and null for cash.  To data and database professionals this is obviously a bad idea, but it’s not obvious from a business point of view. Continue reading

A pretty good requirements analysis checklist

Recently I was asked for a high level requirements plan for a large IT conversion.  I googled around a little for something standard.  I found some good references (see links at the bottom of this post), but not exactly what I was looking for: a simple, method-agnostic layout of the high level steps and checkpoints in requirements for a big project, emphasizing interactions with business people.   I then rifled my files to find the example below. Continue reading

Free form diagrams part 3: just right, with a few rules

Free form diagramming doesn’t only mean “no rules”, it also means “just right”.

This post, last in a three part series on free form diagramming, gives some simple guidelines for getting the technique right.  Part one talked about the tension between rigor and expression in diagramming for analysis and design, and how more precise diagrams can hinder rather than help communications with business people.  Part two reviewed free form diagramming in practice.

While it is impossible to specify format and structure of a free form diagram in advance, here are some useful guidelines to follow when building your free form diagram:

•    Rule number one: draw it as you see it. Typically, an analyst uses a free form diagram because he/she already pictures a business process.  Trust your mental picture and get it down on the page.  Then, go through the following checklist to make sure it says what you want it to say.

•    Model real world processes, things, and events. Free form diagrams have one great advantage over Use Case Diagrams, Data Flow Diagrams, and the rest: they are concrete rather than abstract.  For example, in a free form diagram you can symbolize a shopper with a clipart picture of someone choosing a soup can from a grocery store shelf.  The free form diagram should clearly represent things from the real world: organizations, locations, business processes, interfaces, etc.

•    Use symbols consistently. Look at each repeated rectangle, line, circle, icon, etc, and verify that everything with the same shape represents the same type of thing or event.

•    Speak the language of the audience. A free form diagram should depict things business people care about in recognizable terms.  For example, accountants might readily understand boxes labeled GL, AP and AR for general ledger, accounts payable, and accounts receivable.  A shipping clerk might quickly interpret a process illustration showing labeled icons shaped like trucks and warehouses.

•    Arrangement on the page conveys meaning. Frequently, free form diagrams group objects that belong together on the page.  In other cases, the diagram shows a definite process flow by the arrangement of objects.  For example, Business Intelligence Architecture diagrams typically show information flow from source systems on the left to business reporting on the right.  Could this kind of flow or grouping improve your diagram?

•    Limit the number and complexity of objects on the diagram. Most often, a meaningful diagram shows relatively few objects, organizes them in a sensible way, and does not cross lines.  If you need many objects to tell the story, reduce complexity by arranging them logically.

•    Work at one level of detail, or clearly indicate differences between levels of detail. If your diagram includes a box labeled “AP System” then it would not likely make sense for it also to contain another labeled “Journal Voucher Key”.  Diagrams that communicate well are all at the same level of detail or clearly indicate differences in level of detail.

The free form diagram can be an essential part of a successful IT application project by enabling all to understand the target system in the same way and helping business people understand critical functionality.

Free form diagrams part 2: real world applications

This is part two of a three part series on free form diagramming for IT projects.  This entry reviews free form diagramming in practice. Part one talked about the tension between rigor and expression in diagramming for analysis and design, and how more precise diagrams can hinder rather than help communications with business people.  Part three will provide a few simple guidelines for getting it right.

Some current development tools and methods do include the free form diagram in their toolbox.  For example, Scott Ambler’s Agile Modeling site includes a page on free form diagrams (, and the IBM tool XDE has provided an integrated free form diagram (

A Free Form Diagram Showing the Broad Outlines of a System

A Free Form Diagram Showing the Broad Outlines of a System

Free form diagrams can be especially useful in illustrating the overall scope of an IT development effort.  For example, XDE product literature cites the free form diagram’s “capabilities to communicate broad ideas about the direction of [a] solution”.  IT software product marketers frequently bear out this advantage over structured modeling with attractive diagrams describing their products and services, as in the diagram above.  Such diagrams enable companies to “level set” the terms of a conversation, providing a reference point for providing more detailed information about the product.

A similar diagram can provide a reference for IT project participants.  One, produced jointly early on in custom development of a financial system by the primary business contact and project architect, helped build consensus with designers, database administrators, programmers, and business people.  Some on the project considered this shared vision of the planned system one key to the project’s success.

Both of these examples illustrate the most common use of the free form diagram: to depict “the fundamental organization of a system [or business function], embodied in its components, their relationships to each other and the environment, and the principles governing its design and evolution” (

Because the free form diagram can seem more concrete than other, more abstract, models, a well-constructed free form diagram is a great way to communicate complexity to an audience of both technical and non-technical participants.

The free form diagram is also useful in other situations.  Sometimes a requirements team works with business users who have a diagram describing their current process.  In that case the team might use the same format to describe the new process.  In other cases it might be useful to improve readability by drawing a process flow on a map of the shop floor, or using icons representing real objects and events rather than class symbols on a class model.  The point is to create a medium that precisely matches the audience with the message.

Part 3 of the Free Form Diagrams series provides a few simple guidelines for success with this technique.

Free form diagrams part 1: rigor versus business appeal

One effective way of communicating complexity, especially in the overall architecture of a system, is the free form diagram.  A free form diagram can directly address unique characteristics of a system in a way that business people can understand.

Out on a walk some years ago I met an acquaintance who happened to be a professor of Computer Science.  We talked shop (I worked in the IT department of the local electric utility) and he asked me what methods we used for mathematically proving program correctness.  I confess I laughed.  My team was struggling to figure out just what the business really wanted – forget mathematical proofs!

Our conversation highlights the tension between rigor and expression in diagramming to support IT projects.  Developers need precise diagrams rigorous enough to accurately reflect complex processes.  However, that precision and detail can make the diagrams at best boring and at worst intimidating to business people.  Often they don’t have the time or patience required to sit through the explanations needed to understand such diagrams. Requirements meetings frequently end early with business participants walking off grumbling about IT non-alignment.

UML is today’s de facto analysis and design diagramming standard. To the OO professional UML provides a rich, expressive, and consistent set of conceptual tools that continue to evolve.  Work is underway to improve the accuracy and precision of UML with respect to the target code. (
The problem is that more precision will make the UML diagrams more complex and less understandable to non-coders, making the diagrams even less useful in communication with business people.

For project success business people need to be able to communicate their needs freely and completely.  Requirements analysts need to capture, record, and replay business needs for confirmation, and let the business expert return to other work as quickly as possible.  These communications often work best with pictures rather than words, and of course when everyone understands the picture the same way.  Asking a busy floor supervisor to review a formal class model is literally having him or her review specifications in a foreign language.

One solution is for developers to communicate with business people using free form diagrams, expressive yet rigorous diagrams with drawing conventions tailored to the audience.

More to come in parts two and three of this series.  Part 2 talks about using free form diagrams in practices, and Part 3 provides some simple guidelines for successfully using free form diagrams.